Directed by: Ron Howard || Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, Simon Emanuel
Screenplay by: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan || Starring: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Paul Bettany
Music by: John Powell, John Williams || Cinematography: Bradford Young || Edited by: Pietro Scalia || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 135 minutes
Unlike my review of Rogue One (2016), which I pumped out not long after I saw the film in theatres, and as a direct, purposeful antithesis of the Star Wars fan base’s mindset following the Prequel trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005), I took much time to deliberate over Solo before this essay. The latter phenomenon has in hindsight been referred to as “Phantom Menacing” — a play on words of the original disappointing Prequel, The Phantom Menace (1999) — to describe the instinctual, near immediate attempt to rationalize an over-hyped, yet underwhelming blockbuster. Some would say yours truly experiences Phantom Menacing to this day over the likes of Jurassic World (2015), to which I would respond Phantom Menacing has been redefined and given new life by the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-present, MCU), but I digress… the topic at hand is this latest Star Wars prequel and “standalone” (re: non-episodic) feature, Solo.
A young adult origin story of the second or third most popular Star Wars character, Solo was one of the earliest franchise spinoffs announced after Walt Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, and perhaps the first Star Wars film whose announcement prompted indifference rather than excitement from fans. Development on the film progressed from bad to worse as original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (e.g. The Lego Movie ) were fired after completing the majority of their principal photography, emergency studio backup Ron Howard was hired to salvage the picture by reshooting over 70% of it, and the first marketing released a mere four months (February 2018) before the film released; Solo dropped with a thud in late May and is now the first Star Wars film to lose money; add that to the controversial reception to Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi (2017), and current (as of this writing) Lucasfilm president, Kathleen Kennedy, is likely out of the job in the near future.
That Solo is far and away the best Star Wars prequel (i.e. its narrative takes place before the Original Trilogy [1977, 1980, 1983]) is the ultimate irony, here. The filmic backstory of the original space-Western smuggler popularized by Harrison Ford did what Jar Jar Binks, Jake Lloyd’s Anakin Skywalker, Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker, hours of terrible blue-screen, various racist CGI caricatures, George Lucas’ inane babbling about midichlorians, an entire feature film’s worth of haphazard fan-service, and the single worst romantic subplot in a major Hollywood genre film could not: Financially and possibly irrevocably damage the Star Wars brand. Who said life was fair?
Though Solo feels like it’s missing a prologue scene or two, this “controversial franchise installment” and box office fiasco is little more than a straightforward fantasy-adventure film with insane production values. The only notable stylistic features of Solo are that of its parent franchise’s inherent, now “cliched” fantasy-Western genre hybridizations, indicting that Star Wars’ once revolutionary style has now consumed itself through its sheer ubiquity and pop culture saturation. That being said, and more to my point, Howard and company pull off their set-design, special FX, and grounded science-fantasy action with flying colors. The only cinematographic element worthy of complaint is the film’s inexplicable low-key lighting throughout, which resembles a classical Noir feature instead of a fantasy or Western feature. Literal brightness aside, Solo’s set-pieces are well choreographed, exciting, well paced throughout the entire story, and drive both characterizations and narrative.
As per the performances and characterizations themselves, new lead Alden Ehrenreich captures the essence of Ford’s swashbuckling antihero without being an impersonation of Ford himself. Reductive though the Star Wars universe may be at this point in greater pop culture, this latest installment continues the series’ trend of strong characterizations in conjunction with charismatic leads, as opposed to relying on lead actors’ performances alone to carry an otherwise blank slate (e.g. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady, Dwayne Johnson in most every starring role, etc.). Both Ehrenreich and his costars, particularly Joonas Suotamo’s Chewbacca and Woody Harrelson’s disgruntled, jaded mentor, Beckett, have emotional arcs with significant payoff. Even Emilia Clarke’s female lead is memorable, despite how little I care for the actress in and beyond Game of Thrones (2011-present). Like The Force Awakens (2015) and all the better Star Wars films, for that matter, the spectacular fireworks and impressive action are embellishments on the memorable human drama at the film’s dramatic center.
Solo avoids the high-minded themes and philosophical introspection of all other Star Wars films before it in favor of a more casual but equally emotional tone. There’s little to do with the Sith, the Jedi, the Force, and larger questions of good versus evil, as Solo focuses on the seedy underbelly of George Lucas’ original space opera, flaunting numerous Western gunslinger and saloon motifs, as well as crime drama tropes like complicated heists, high-stakes poker games, and devious mob syndicates (… in SPAAAAAACE!). On second thought, maybe that low-key lighting isn’t too out of place.
In any case, this film’s more flamboyant, cocksure attitude fits its charismatic lead; the visuals and world are as familiar as anything in the Star Wars universe, but the shift in character perspective is, dare I say, a refreshing change of pace from all those hokey religions and ancient weapons. It is the same old galaxy a long time ago and far, far away, but hardly showcases the Empire, the series’ big bad, at all; the film is better for it.
Regardless whether this latest “Star Wars Story” tanks Disney’s hopes for another cash cow a la the MCU or merely forces Disney to reevaluate their long-term box office takeover strategy, Solo is a good movie. Whether Phil Lord and Chris Miller accounted for 30% or 0% of the finished theatrical project is of little interest to me so long as the film itself is enjoyable, and thus both diehard fans’ and mainstream audiences’ disinterest in this movie puzzles me. It’s competent without being complicated, emotional without being philosophical, respectful without being reverent to its title character, all of which I argue is in the spirit of the original space cowboy. Solo won’t teach you to let go of your hatred or reach out with your feelings, but it will show you the merits of shooting straight and first. And if you don’t care? Well… maybe you’d like it better watching those other prequels, your highness.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Solo doesn’t seem to have won back any naysayers turned off by The Last Jedi, which I also liked, but if anyone gave it the time of day, it probably would; this is the first Star Wars canon feature to expand beyond the franchise’s principle backdrop of space rebellions, and instead flaunts one of the better genre-blending adventures since Stephen Sommer’s Mummy films (1999, 2001). The cast is great, the FX are great, and the story is tonally, thematically, and rhythmically consistent.
— However… the film is so dark throughout it verges on Film Noir caricature. The first act feels as if it’s missing a handful of establishing sequences.
—> RECOMMENDED: At the very least, you’ll probably have the whole theatre to yourself!
? I was shocked that Jabba the Hutt wasn’t in this movie, and you should be, too.